The Green Lantern presents a superefficient, four-in-one economy answer pack!

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Feb. 26 2009 1:38 PM

Thermostats, Tissues, Light Bulbs, and Power Strips

The Green Lantern presents a superefficient, four-in-one economy answer pack!

Here are some quick answers to a few popular (though not so consequential) questions that keep showing up in the Lantern's inbox:

I've heard that my appliances waste energy even when I'm not using them, so long as they're still plugged in. Can I save that "vampire power" by plugging everything into a power strip? Or will the surge protector suck its own vampire power?

Power strip.

It's not hard to see why this brainteaser is so popular among the Lantern's readers. This column thrives on tricky lifestyle questions with unexpected answers. It may be interesting to ask whether polystyrene coffee cups are really worse than a dish-washed mug or whether a CSA is still environmentally friendly if its members waste a lot of food. But there's a risk to trying to be too clever about these things. Yes, according to data from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, some types of power strips do waste a tiny bit of electricity even when switched off. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't use them whenever possible to cut down on vampire power waste.

Part of the challenge in reducing your environmental impact is to decide which questions are worth your time and money. Even if a surge protector leaks a little juice, it's probably not worth the effort to worry about it. The Lantern will confess to dwelling on these minutiae from time to time—your choice of pens or pencils is not all that Earth-shattering—but in the end, the keys to reducing your environmental impact can be summed up in a few words: Buy less stuff, use less gasoline and electricity, and make sure you have energy-efficient machines at home and at work.

The problem with incandescent light bulbs, everyone keeps telling me, is that they waste lots of energy producing heat instead of light. So if I switched to a fluorescent bulb, wouldn't my heater need to work a little harder to keep me warm?

Light bulb.

The quick answer is yes—but the folks who calculate the energy savings from compact fluorescent lamps have already taken your question into account. It's true that switching to fluorescent bulbs may increase your heating bill ever so slightly in the winter. But it's still worth your time and money to make the switch. First, an obvious point: You're likely to use your light bulbs every day, but unless you live at polar latitude, you probably aren't running your heater year-round. In the summertime, your air conditioner may need more energy to offset the heat from the incandescents. Second, most people don't heat their homes with electricity—they use other fuel sources like natural gas that produce less carbon per unit of energy. Surprisingly enough, it's more efficient to warm your house with a heater than a light bulb. (The same arguments apply to any modern appliance that saves energy by operating at lower temperatures.)

I have one of those thermostats on which you can program the temperature to go down at night. It seems as if my heater has to work very hard to get the temperature back up in the morning—so wouldn't I be better off keeping the thermostat set at 68 all the time?

Thermostat.

You'd have a point if the air conditioner kicked in every time you lowered your thermostat. But that isn't the case. Turning down the temperature cools off your house by reducing the amount of energy used to heat it. (The cold weather outside does the rest of the work.) In fact, the amount of energy it takes to heat your home back up in the morning is just about the same as the amount you save while your house cools down in the evening. In between, when your house is at 60 degrees, you'll be saving a good deal of energy.

It does make sense, in certain cases, to keep an energy-guzzling machine running rather than to turn it off for five minutes. But even for computers and compact fluorescent lamps, the break-even time is so low that you may as well turn them off when you leave the room for anything longer than a bathroom break.

Every winter, I spend a few weeks suffering from a nasty runny nose. As I go through boxes and boxes of tissues, I wonder where to dispose of the dirty trash. Should I put used tissues in the toilet when I go to the bathroom or into the garbage?

Tissues.

A first step is to save trees by cutting down on the number of tissues you use in the first place. (Hanky, anyone?) But back to the question: In theory, throwing your tissues down the toilet—in the course of your regularly scheduled flushes—might have slight benefits: Some paper would dissolve, eventually ending up as part of a sludge that might be recycled into fertilizer or converted into electricity. But given that tissues aren't designed to disintegrate in water, much of the paper may end up getting filtered out during the sewage treatment process. From there, it goes right to the dump, just as it would if you threw it in the trash. (Of course, you may be wasting energy by forcing the sewage treatment plant to handle extra material.) Many municipal sewer systems ask residents not to dump tissues down the toilet to prevent the risk of clogged drains—although the Lantern's understanding is that this rule is designed to keep people from using their pipes as an all-purpose wastebasket.

Ultimately, your choice of where to dispose your snotty tissues is basically a wash. When it comes to the environment, there are weightier things to worry about than tissues.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.

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